“They Find in Religion an Aggressor”

Please Note: This is a post by guest author, S.W. Atwell.  The views and opinions expressed in her post are entirely her own.  If you would like to post as a guest author on this blog, please contact me at the email address posted on my contact page.

— Paul Sunstone

I’m writing this blog piece in response to some of Paul Sunstone’s musings about people who blog about leaving the religion in which they grew up.  According to Sunstone, some people lose their childhood religion because of an intellectual disagreement with doctrine.  “Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.”  Others found their religion personally repressing, even destructive to the development of their selves.  “They find in religion an Aggressor.

I cannot resist blogging about my loss of faith, not the least because Sunstone feels that loss-of-religion blog pieces usually “outclass” religious blogs.  How can I resist an invitation to be “classy.”  Oh, yes, and Sunstone finds it especially “moving” when the reason for leaving one’s religion was the discovery that it was working against them personally.  So, now I simply have to blog about my little faith crash.  I want to move my readers and do so with at least a little class.

When I was seven, my moderately observant Jewish parents placed me in a school for Hasidic girls.  Hasids are the “old style” European Orthodox Jews, easily identified by their clothes.  The men wore dark suits, long beards, sidelocks and black fedoras.  The women dressed in long, dark-colored skirts and never rolled their sleeves higher than the elbow.  Once they married, my classmates covered their heads with wigs or kerchiefs.

I liked the school well enough at first.  I did not even mind learning that I was not observing Jewish ritual “correctly.”  Learning to follow the customs better did not seem all that different to me from learning to read better in the second grade than I had in the first.  Where I got stuck, however, was on this God (usually referred to as “Ha-shem” or “the name”, because Orthodox Jews avoid saying God’s name) who knew everything that was going to happen and could do anything about it that he chose.  As a child getting crunched under a heavy load of disapproval from parents and teachers, I could not understand why he did not intercede on my behalf before I screwed up.  How about making it easier for me to learn to spell?  Or putting a thought in my mind that would stop my big mouth before I insulted my big sister?  Or even prompting the adults to be a little bit kinder when I made mistakes?  How could an all-powerful God make it so easy to sin even when you didn’t really mean to.  The story of Lot’s wife was simply terrifying.  What small child has never peeked through her fingers when told to cover her eyes?  Unkind adults and an uncaring God make for a bad psychic combination in the minds of the young.  I still remember one little girl who was scolded by her teacher for making mistakes at math.  She waited until recess to whisper her greatest fear to her best friend, “Ha-shem must really hate me,” she wept, “and I don’t know why.”

There is not much of a line between god and parent in the mind of a small child.  The parent can get the child to believe in god, or not.  The parent can get the child to believe anything, or not.  Sometimes, there is not much of a line between god and the parent in the mind of the parent.  My own mother was a religious fanatic.  She was sure she knew what god was thinking.  It was, of course, whatever she was thinking.  God’s desires were her own.  One of her desires was to quelch my growth into any sort of person who thought for herself.  She had this right, because it was what God wanted.  While I did not grasp all this until I was in my thirties, I certainly felt unable to live in some sense by the time I was twelve.  My breath would nearly stop at times against her unyielding wall.

This was also the point in my life when I became really aware of the most faith-testing circumstance faced by modern Jews, the Holocaust.  I asked my mother why God had not prevented it.  She responded, smugly, that God always had a reason for allowing bad things to happen and that the Holocaust had paved the way for the modern State of Israel.  In that moment, I decided not to believe in God.  Either he did not exist, because such bumbling could hardly be credited to the Omnipotent One, or he was not all-powerful.  If he couldn’t prevent babies from being gassed, he did not deserve to have people believe in him.

That last was a primitive reaction, but there was something even more primitive going on.  There were three people in the room that day, my mother, God and me.  My mother wanted to tell me the most terrible things so I would know I was never safe with anyone other than her.  God was her weapon.  If I accepted what she was saying, I would somehow no longer exist.  In short, one of us in that room had to die.  I was too stubborn to be the one, and I was too frightened of my mother to make her be the one.  Only God could die that day.

It would make quite a headline, wouldn’t it?  “Jew Kills God.” Now, where have I heard that before?

© S.W. Atwell (2011)

11 thoughts on ““They Find in Religion an Aggressor”

  1. I remember the day when I had a couple of shocking realizations. First, I realized God hated me and all women. Then I realized I hated him right back. It took a few more days, maybe weeks, to realize he was merely a figment of some douche bag’s misogynistic imagination.

    Life is so much better without God.

    Excellent post.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, S.W. Atwell.

    “She responded, smugly, that God always had a reason for allowing bad things to happen and that the Holocaust had paved the way for the modern State of Israel. In that moment, I decided not to believe in God. Either he did not exist, because such bumbling could hardly be credited to the Omnipotent One, or he was not all-powerful. If he couldn’t prevent babies from being gassed, he did not deserve to have people believe in him.”

    I’ve reached the same conclusion. Either there is no God or he isn’t deserving of awe, reverence nor respect. I look at it this way: If God did bring us into this world that alone doesn’t earn him respect or authority, much like abusive parents. Just because you gave birth to it doesn’t mean you can treat it any way you wish and still remain in charge.

    • “If God did bring us into this world that alone doesn’t earn him respect or authority, much like abusive parents.” What an insight, D’Ma! Might I also add that Old Testament depictions of God are often in line with some of the psychiatric diagnoses given to people who, if they become parents, usually abuse their children with their illness. Narcissistic Personality Disorder comes to mind, as does Borderline Personality Disorder.

  3. “She was sure she knew what god was thinking. It was, of course, whatever she was thinking. ”

    Pretty much defines all religious fervor. We are lucky when people believe that God is thinking we should be nice to each other. Though somehow even they seem to screw it up in the end.

    • I think most people believe in the God they would wish for if they did not believe in a god. The same people who believe in a Celestial Meanie are usually pretty mean-hearted themselves. I don’t mean people like the little girl who cried because she thought God hated her. People who are sad about the existence of a cruel god are in another category entirely.

  4. One definition of God is the total sum of all that exists. Using that definition, God has to be real. If your definition of God is the creator of the universe, then perhaps God is real.

    • If God is the sum total of all that exists, is he necessarily the *creator* of all that exists? Well, if you include “creator” in that sum total, I suppose so.

  5. I believe the idea of God was promoted by some adults who thought they and/or others needed something to take on the role of their parents. One reason why some scientists are looking for intelligent life in outer space is they are hoping space aliens have answers to some of humans’ problems. So it seems God and Space Aliens serve the same purpose in some peoples’ minds.

    • The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest modern American humanitarians, quoted the psalms during his son’s funeral: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God.”

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